By Rebecca Gaunt
Educator and artist Priscilla Smith is running as a Democrat in the special election for Georgia House District 34, which covers Kennesaw and part of Marietta.
Smith ran for the seat in last year’s regular election, receiving 13,199 votes to Bert Reeves’ 16,188.
Reeves resigned in April to take a position at the Georgia Institute of Technology as vice president for Institute Relations.
She’s a familiar face at the Gold Dome, where she was one of several protesters arrested in 2018, along with then-state Sen. Nikema Williams, who is now the representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district.
During the 2019 legislative session, she was a daily presence at the Capitol building, adopting the persona of Donna J. Trump to protest HB 481, the anti-abortion bill.
A life-long Georgian, she grew up in Cobb County, attended Hickory Hills Elementary, Marietta Junior High, and graduated from Marietta High School. Smith earned a degree from Trinity University in San Antonio, then returned to Atlanta to raise her daughter. In 2015 she returned to Cobb to take care of her aging father. He died in 2016, but she still lives in the home her family built in 1973. Her daughter graduated from the University of Georgia and now lives in New York City.
For 20 years, Smith taught first elementary, then high school.
“The interweaving of visual, literary, musical, and performing art in academic curriculum was a constant in my classrooms and in the culture of the schools where I taught,” she said.
Currently, Smith is on the founding board of the Elizabeth Foundation that provides grass-roots addiction intervention. She also serves on the founding board of Georgians for the Arts, a statewide arts advocacy organization.
“I want to help reawaken our dreams, our mentality, our culture. Georgia is a beautiful land, rich in intelligent, creative, compassionate people and abundant natural resources. There is no reason for any of us, her children, to live in need,” Smith wrote.
Smith completed a Q&A for the Courier via email.
How do you feel about the state’s COVID-19 response? What went well and what could have been done differently?
I “feel” compelled by the state government’s poor response to run for office so I can get in there and show true leadership, since COVID-19 is not done with us yet. A study in summer 2020 showed that if Trump (and, therefore, Kemp) had closed the nation two weeks earlier than he did, we could’ve saved 80% of the lives lost up to that point. 80%. Kemp and the GOP-led state legislature were complicit. Kemp could have rallied support and solidarity for mask-wearing and social distancing as the patriotic acts that they are. Instead, he “recommended” people wear masks and placed the value of money ahead of human lives by opening businesses too early. The legislature has required masks and twice-weekly testing to work at the state capitol, but they didn’t extend that same safeguard to the rest of Georgia. When Georgians needed their government most, it wasn’t up to the task.
To the governor and the majority in the legislature, money was more important than human lives or human needs. They cut $1 billion in education in 2020 rather than reverse the previous year’s tax cut that benefits the very wealthiest Georgians. Rather than raise tax on tobacco, which would have cut the education budget deficit in half, Kemp and cronies kept accepting campaign donations” and let Georgians pay less than half what surrounding states tax on a pack of cigarettes. And now they’re cutting short the extended federal unemployment benefits, saying that unemployment is keeping workers from applying for jobs. Most people can’t live on $300 a week. No one is having a “luxurious time” lazing about the house with their vast unemployment wealth. We’re still in a pandemic. Childcare is still not fully available. Schools opened just long enough to let out for the summer. It’s not a work ethic problem, its a wage slavery problem. The treatment of our essential workers is abysmal, and COVID really demonstrated that.
As for what is going well, hospital staff have given us an example to live up to. Parents have worked miracles. Schools organized to try to make sure students who rely on the school for breakfast and lunch didn’t go hungry. The federal government distributed stimulus checks that proved how important it is to provide fuel to keep the economic engine running. Scientists learned the facts about this novel virus and educated the public with their findings. Multiple pharmaceutical companies developed effective vaccines–I participated in the Pfizer trial. Manufacturing stepped up and is producing enough doses to protect the American public, but there is an access problem for marginalized communities. And a significant portion of the population isn’t ready to accept it, for which I blame the previous administration and state government for failing to do their job of telling the truth. Instead they minimized the danger of what is essentially a plague. We need to employ more people to get the vaccine to underserved communities and make it available at community events. We must reverse the distrust sown by weak leaders who are afraid of being honest with the public. When leaders tell the truth, their constituents know it.
What are your views on public education?
Public education is the foundation of our society. Just fully funding education should be the bare minimum, but in Georgia that has only been done twice in the past 2 decades, so it’s no wonder we rank as one of the worst states for education. Last year, when schools needed it more than ever to accommodate for COVID, the Republican-led legislature cut $1 billion from education. At that time there was twice that in the state’s “rainy day fund” and only half was spent on the 2020-21 budget. What is a rainy day fund for? Emergencies. Emergencies like the one we’re emerging from now. Furthermore, 2019 tax cuts benefited only the wealthiest of Georgians. Education paid the price. We need smaller classes, facilities renovation, access to broadband, and funding for after-school programs. And there’s no reason 4,000 little children should be on a waiting list for Pre-K.
We need to fund all levels of education. Universal child care and Pre-K should be a given. Family leave for parents of newborns, adopted children, and care for family should be a given. Higher education must become more affordable. Student loan debt is inhibiting our development as a society. It used to be that 306 hours of work would pay for 4 years of college. Today, students need 4,459 hours to pay for 4 years. We have to give our children the best resources and tools to be successful, and higher education is a key part of that. Free community college is a start, but we must reduce tuition for public universities.
Do you support school vouchers?
Taxpayer money should not go to private schools. We shouldn’t be diverting desperately needed funds for public schools into private schools. We must seriously invest in public education so that we can lift every child up, not just a lucky few. It’s better for our kids and it’s better for our future to invest in every child.
Where do you stand on environmental issues? Do you think local government responded appropriately with regard to the ethylene oxide issues at the Sterigenics facility and Georgia Power coal ash pits along the Chattahoochee River?
I watched what can happen when government does its job to protect people by protecting the environment and when big money is more important than people’s lives. I remember when the Cuyahoga River used to burn and remember the founding of the EPA. I remember Love Canal. I have a childhood friend and neighbor who is now disabled from mesothelioma as a result of a summer’s work when he was a young man working around asbestos. And the asbestos industry knew it was extremely dangerous for decades before its use was sufficiently regulated. Countless other examples show what happens when industry goes unregulated. Sterigenics and others that use ethylene oxide have known for more than 30 years that it’s carcinogenic. If government were doing its job, it would have made sure the Sterigenics facilities were constructed properly in the first place to prevent endangering the surrounding community. Data from 2014 showed toxic levels of ethylene oxide being released by Sterigenics yet nothing was done. Outcries reached a level attracting larger public attention in 2019, 5 years after the data were gathered. That doesn’t sound exactly responsive to me. I will note that the intervention of state legislators and other local electeds was instrumental in action being taken, but it should never have gotten to the crisis point it reached.
What is your stance on climate change?
I first learned about greenhouse gases in 1976. My environmental science professor cited evidence that was already more than a quarter century old. Dr. Espy told us it was too late. Back then. Our children and our children’s children will be living with severe weather for sure. They may face water shortages, refugee crises, and agricultural shortage from pollinator extinction. We have enough time and certainly the creativity and ingenuity to navigate into a livable future. We have no choice but to reduce carbon emissions to net zero. We need to completely move to renewable energy. The recent announcements by Exxon, Shell, and Chevron are the beginnings of the transformation of the energy companies and the possibility of the clouds of disaster parting.
The silver lining is the challenge that we can rise to. We can figure out how to get around town without burning dead dinosaurs and million-year-old jungle remains. We can build homes without cutting down every single tree and we can plant new ones as replacements. We can create sustainable, renewable energy by harnessing the wind, the sun, and the heat of the earth. And we can meet goals. If we set them. All we need is the will to do it.
Are you in support of SB 202, the Georgia voting law passed this year?
SB 202 is voter suppression plain and simple. Georgia is changing. I saw it, looking down from the gallery during the 2019 legislative session. Folks on one side of the aisle, the side that claims the majority, were all white and almost all male. On the other was a tapestry of gender and skin color and not everybody wore suits and ties. The people who’ve controlled government, business, and culture since Reconstruction are making a last grab to hold onto power. And they’re willing to risk American democracy to do it. They’ve known for a while that higher turnout usually helps Democrats, so they make it harder to vote. Let’s think about it. Biden won Georgia by fewer than 0.3% or 12,000 votes. Warnock and Ossoff won by 2% and 1.2% respectively. Those are thin margins. Even the slightest bit of depreciated turnout can shift the election in the Republicans’ favor. They don’t need to do too much, just shave off a few hundred votes here, a few thousand there. That’s why they significantly reduced accessibility to dropboxes, cutting the number of them in the metro area from 111 to 23. And now the law requires them to be inside, so they are only open during polling hours, instead of 24/7 (even though there was no evidence of tampering or stuffing that showed on the cameras monitoring dropboxes during the general election.) On top of that, a police officer has to monitor each drop box. After all the BLM protests last year and seeing what we have continued to see in the year following–unarmed Black man after unarmed Black man being brutalized and killed by police–it’s obvious that the sight of a uniformed officer is a deterrent to people of color.
SB202 cuts in half the amount of time for absentee voting. This is after record absentee turnout. But for a change, the majority of absentee voters were Democrats. With all the issues with mail delays we’ve had, this can easily disenfranchise voters trying to mail back their absentee ballots in time.
What ought to be most galling to Cobb Countians of both parties is the disempowerment of our local elections board. SB202 removed the Secretary of State, the only elected person on that board, from the State Board of Elections. Now, that body can declare any county “underperforming” and appoint a single administrator to take over the local elections. This is supposedly to prevent “voter fraud”. As of this writing, there are 24 cases of voter fraud being prosecuted in Georgia, which includes cases from elections in Georgia going back to 2017. Out of the over 10 million votes cast in Georgia since 2017. 24 cases of fraud. SB 202 could easily disenfranchise many more than 24, I can guarantee that. Let’s call this what it is: it’s a voter suppression bill in response to Georgia voting for Biden, Warnock, and Ossoff in 2020, and lies about election fraud pushed by the former president. The GOP is scared of their constituency, so they are compelled to appease their base. They don’t care about “voter fraud”, they care about re-election. They don’t care about voter integrity, they care about ensuring they keep their stranglehold on Georgia. We cannot let them get away with undermining our democracy, and I will fight to stop voter suppression to ensure all the people of this state have a voice. This is our government.
In 2019, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) sponsored HB 481, the anti-abortion bill, also referred to as Heartbeat bill and LIFE act. Did you support the bill and why/why not?
I will never forget being in the Capitol when the Senate passed HB481. A squad of suits emerged gleefully from the chamber, slapping high fives and clapping each other on the back for its passage. It was horrible. It was not a display of compassion for the unborn, especially not for the women the bill affected. You’d have thought the boys had just won The Big Game. A young man I’d befriended, an aid to a senator, joined the party. After a few moments when he was alone, I went over to him and, as calmly as my horror and fury would allow me to, I reminded him that this was no time to celebrate. The passing of this bill represented danger for marginalized women, rape victims, the poor. I said that when we’re ready to provide the financial and material support for every child and woman, and when we’re ready to make all men responsible for these pregnancies equally responsible for the entire well being of the women and the fertilized ova their bodies house, only then can we talk about celebrating. I know that meant something to him. I wish I’d said it to every other cheering senator.
The passage of this bill – and the brave women who spoke up against it on the floor – are what inspired me to run in the first place. Women have a right to control their own bodies. Period. We should not have the government telling us what we can and cannot do with our own lives. A women’s right to choose is an essential freedom enshrined in the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade. HB481 is not a bill about a “fetal heartbeat,” a pumping of blood in an embryo that’s sometimes observable at six weeks after fertilization–before the developing embryonic cells are even considered to be a fetus, by the way–and before many women are even aware they’re pregnant. It’s about forcing women to give birth against their will.
This bill is unconstitutional and immoral. Georgia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, and the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Mothers are just as important as our children, yet our healthcare system doesn’t treat them as such. We are the ones who bring life to this world, and yet we are treated with utter disrespect and disregard of our own autonomy. We know what is best for us. Legislators – the vast majority of them male – do not. And, by the way, prohibiting abortion doesn’t actually get rid of it, it just makes it more dangerous and criminalizes the poor. Wealthy people will still be able to get illegal abortions. The poor and working class, though, will go through life-threatening ordeals to have their illegal abortions. Abortion rates were higher before Roe v. Wade. All prohibiting it does is move abortions underground and make it much more dangerous.
These supposed “pro-life” people seem to forget about the child the second its born. They refuse to make healthcare more affordable, making the cost of having a baby unaffordable for many. They refuse to allow gay people to adopt, making foster children more likely to be forever stuck in our dysfunctional foster system. They refuse to give families paid family leave so that they can take care of the very children that they want to force those parents to have. They refuse to give real sex education to students or provide free contraception so that they can practice safe sex. It’s no accident that teen pregnancy rates are highest in areas where abstinence is the main form of sex education. Bills like these ignore the plight of so many women, especially working class and poor women, to try to force a false sense of morality on people, but those same proponents of morality don’t show any to the child after it’s born. We must address these issues before we can even think about having discussions on what a woman has a right to do with her own body. I will work to repeal this law immediately once I am elected to represent State House District 34.
Where are your views on the Second Amendment?
This is about common sense. Ninety percent of Americans approve of universal background checks. It used to be the case that there was bipartisan support for an assault rifle ban – even Reagan supported it. But because of the gun lobby, that is no longer the case. Guns have less regulation and safety measures than cars – despite guns being made intentionally to kill. We should change that. You need a license to drive, it should be the same for a gun. When you get a driver’s license, you have to take a drivers test and a written exam. The same should be required for gun licenses. What’s wrong with teaching people how to use a gun when they own it? Is that not the practical thing to do? We should implement safety training to ensure guns don’t get into the hands of children who have tragically lost their lives playing with what they thought was a toy. Waiting periods are also common-sense reform, ensuring someone who wants to commit a mass shooting can’t just buy a gun the day before and do it, like what we have seen in many of the mass shootings we’ve seen in the past decade – including the Atlanta spa shootings. One last tragic statistic: 70% of suicides happen by gun. Other ways of taking one’s own life are far less immediate. Less access to guns can save thousands of lives of people in a mental health crisis. Again, this is about common sense. It isn’t to say gun reform will solve all our problems, but it will certainly help. It’s a step in the right direction to make our country safer, and it doesn’t have to take away your right to bear arms.
What should Georgia do with regard to transportation policy?
We need a vote on expanding MARTA in Cobb. Cobb needs to have a vote that will show the community wants mass transit. Mass transit will bring thousands of jobs to Cobb and help the working class get to work much more easily and give employers the workers they need. It also will help our environment, reducing carbon emissions when more people take transit. Investing in transit will bring back a significant return on investment in Cobb that we shouldn’t pass up. And, of course, it reduces traffic!
One way of paying for it is to raise sales tax, but another way is to have the state help fund MARTA, especially if it expands into more counties like Cobb. MARTA is the only public transit system in a major city in the US that isn’t funded by the state. MARTA has so much potential, but if we don’t invest in it, how can we expect it to work?
What is your response to the BLM movement and calls for police reform?
Black Lives Matter. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, and I stand in solidarity with the Black community who are fighting for their right to live in an equal society. I joined some of the protests last year as safely as possible. Last year’s protests gave me great heart. We need to listen to the black and brown communities when they are speaking loud and clear that they need change. The way we do policing and our criminal justice system is simply wrong, racially biased and cruel. We all know the root cause of crime is poverty. We need to stop over-criminalizing our communities – especially our communities of color – and start investing in them: education, healthcare, jobs, better access to healthy food, and a living wage. This is how you solve most crimes, not by putting people in jail.
I stand with Biden when he says we must eliminate private prisons. There shouldn’t be a profit motive to arresting people. We should legalize marijuana and tax it – that’s how Colorado got out of debt. We can use that money to invest back into our communities. We need to treat drug addiction as the healthcare issue is, not a crime issue. We need to ban chokeholds, implement bias training, and create public safety departments that are dedicated to community needs, including mental health response, child protection, addiction treatment and a more balanced approach to policing. We need to prioritize de-escalation, not creating a crisis out of even the smallest of traffic citations. I know that the work the police do every day is difficult, and I know there are many good policemen out there, but the problem isn’t good or bad apples. The problem is the system we have in place, and the police are responsible for way too many issues that they don’t have sufficient training to solve. If we lift that burden and create a more humane, solutions-based form of public safety, it will benefit everyone, both our communities and the police who are supposed to serve them.
Rep. Ginny Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) sponsored HB 401, to make it illegal for medical professionals to provide hormone and other treatments to transgendered people under 18. There were also bills to prevent trans youth from participating in school sports. Is this legislation you would support in office?
We don’t have good statistics on how many transgender children live in Georgia. UCLA statistical modeling suggests there may be about 150,000 teenagers in the U.S. How many, then, in Georgia? The attack on our trans children is unnecessary and cruel. What gives these legislators the right to force a child to be something they are not? How does this affect these legislators? They are going out of their way to destroy trans lives – lives that already suffer from high rates of homelessness, suicide, and homicide. They suffer this way because people don’t accept them. It is not our business to decide what people want to do with their lives or to criminalize physicians, scientists, who understand the condition far better than lawmakers. Trans people do not affect our lives negatively in any way, yet people want to get rid of them just because they’re different. Trans hate is based in fear of the unknown, hardly a reason to make treatment illegal. What happened to Republicans’ supposed support of freedom? We should let trans children live and do what they and their parents think is best for them, they know better than any legislator ever would.
What can Georgia do to improve healthcare? Do you support Medicaid expansion?
Of course I support expanding Medicaid! It’s a no-brainer! It will give 500,000 Georgians access to affordable healthcare and create 56,000 jobs. The federal government will give us 90% of the funds if we do it, and increased economic activity will pay for the first five years of the program in only one year. How can we say no to such a good deal? Kemp and the GOP’s waiver gave fewer than 100,000 people healthcare and cost more. They are going out of their way to ensure Georgians don’t get affordable healthcare, just for the sake of partisanship.
Once we expand Medicaid, we should go beyond that. I believe everyone should be able to afford to go to the doctor. We need universal healthcare, and expanding Medicaid in Georgia would be a great step towards that end.
Disability waiver waitlists are a major issue for the disability community in Georgia. Waitlists have thousands of people competing for a handful of slots and some people wait years to get one. During last year’s budget cuts, activists had to lobby to prevent all new waivers from being cut. What can be done to improve the situation for struggling families?
Our state’s open contempt for the poor and struggling must be addressed. As with broader Medicaid expansion, this isn’t a problem of lacking the resources to help people, but a problem of lawmakers who see financial struggle as fruits reaped by the irresponsible and the lazy. We know that this is not the case. One-third of American adults are just one unexpected $400 bill away from poverty. But when our lawmakers view hardship as something deserved, rather than something to be fixed, we can only expect them to produce a system that views the disabled as a burden and does everything it can to put off getting them the assistance they need.
Thankfully, Georgia’s going to have some help here. At the state level, Sen. Sally Harrell, who represents Senate District 40 in the northeast metro, introduced SB208 that requires full funding over a five-year period for Georgians who qualify for the New Options Waiver (NOW) or Comprehensive Supports Waiver (COMP). At the federal level, in March, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, along with three Democratic U.S. senators, introduced a draft of the Home and Community-Based Services Access Act of 2021, that’s also designed to eliminate these waitlist problems and ensure HCBS access across the country, even when crossing state lines. This bill would also establish minimum standards of services for all states, which will be a crucial tool for pushing back against Kemp and his cronies. Waiver waitlists have become a problem because leadership in states like ours was allowed to cry crocodile tears about where the money would come from when money was already sitting on the table. With a national bill to back us up, we can make sure Kemp isn’t allowed to cut corners on vital services for disabled and elderly Georgians.
What topics are important to you that we haven’t addressed? What are your biggest goals for this office?
As an artist, and arts educator, and a student of culture, we must recognize the contribution of artists and creative people to quality of life. Students engaged in music, art, and performance go on to college at higher rates, are less involved in disciplinary actions, and enjoy school more. People who live in cities with beautiful architecture, well-designed, public spaces, and opportunities for self expression are healthier, more productive, and tend to live in the same place for longer. Artists who serve on advisory boards for governments offer innovative ideas and efficiencies to public works projects even as they’re making them more aesthetically pleasing. And that’s not even acknowledging that arts activities represent 3.8% of GDP in Georgia, higher than the 3.4% of GDP for the country. We need to provide a healthy, steady, reliable stream of funding for individual artists, arts organizations, and arts education in the state, especially if we want to be the number one state to do business.
We need to raise the minimum wage to a livable wage of $15 per hour. I know it won’t happen all at once, but we need to set the goal and the steps to achieve it. There is no county in the country where $7.35 per hour, 40 hrs a week, is enough for a two-bedroom apartment. In Kennesaw, the cheapest two-bedroom I could find was $1300, and if we go by recommendations of rent being one-fourth to one-third of income, that takes $15 per hour. A single income used to be enough for a head of household to support a spouse and children, but that is a rare scenario these days. Wages have been stagnant for 40 years when adjusted for inflation. Housing, education, healthcare, transportation, food, and other necessities are all going up. That is a recipe for disaster. We must raise the minimum wage, which will in turn raise everyone else’s wages so we can actually afford to live on 40 hours a week.
We need more civic education in classrooms and ways to inspire students to want to get more involved as citizens. We should implement a “Citizens’ Day,” a paid day off so parents can take their kids to the capitol, to visit their mayor, or to canvass in a campaign for a candidate or a cause.
We also need prison reform. We need to decarcerate our state, and stop focusing on punishment instead of on rehabilitation and investing in communities. As I mentioned above, the overwhelming source of crime is poverty. Alleviate poverty, alleviate crime. We need to invest in educating our prison population–an overwhelming percentage of which have learning differences and suffer from childhood trauma–and helping them restart their lives. We should look at successful programs in Norway, Iceland and South Korea that have very low rates of recidivism. That’s where our investments should be going. We should bring solutions to our problems, not just throw people in jail and think that solves anything in the long run.
I won’t stand by and watch while the entitled few erode our hard-won democracy. As your representative, I will put the needs of our people first, restore faith in our ability to take an active role in our government and help lead Georgia into a bright future for all of us.
Gov. Brian Kemp has set the election for June 15, and early voting has begun. All candidates will be on one ballot regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, the top two will advance to a runoff.
Smith’s website can be found here.
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.